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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lucky You

Lucky You if you were among those in the world who may have found yourselves going to see Spiderman 3 this past weekend and finding it (surprise!) sold out you “settled” for the “lesser” new opening of the week starring Drew Barrymore and Eric Bana. Those opting to see Lucky You rather than going home Spidey-free were certainly in for a treat.

It’s not often you find filmmakers willing to make an adult (and by that I mean in intelligence and not sleaze) movie headed for the multiplexes just in time for the summer blockbuster season, and it is even rarer to find one courageous (or daft enough) to go up against the biggest giant of the season but director and co-writer Curtis Hanson (In Her Shoes) did both with this odd little gem of a movie that defies easy categorization. Is it a fragile romance or a story about a gambling addiction? Is it a tale of anger, competition, and healing between father and son or a character study of the types of people drawn to live in Las Vegas? Actually, it’s a combination of all of the above, and so much more.

I lived in Las Vegas for several years when I was a teenager and college student, so I witnessed a lot of the “story” behind Lucky You up close and can attest that the grittier (and weirder) look glimpsed here is a whole lot closer to the true Vegas than the one seen in pictures like Ocean’s Thirteen or Casino. Frankly, Las Vegas is a lot like a roach motel. Only glitterier. It draws an (ahem) unusual crowd of people to its lights and tawdry attractions as
Lucky You illustrates with some nicely drawn lesser characters such as Ready Eddie, played by Horatio Sanz (School for Scoundrels) and especially Lester (Saverio Guerra; late of tv’s “Becker”) as a man so willing to take a bet he has had female breasts permanently implanted and is now living in a casino’s men’s room for months on end to in order to win a wager. Talk about cuckoo for Coco Puffs.

Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore; Music and Lyrics) herself is not exactly playing with a full deck. She has come to Vegas from her hometown of Bakersfield, California to be a singer, and she has exactly $1,061 on her ($1,000 in travelers checks she explains) with which to find a place of her
own and support herself until she gets settled and is making enough money to get by independently. That’s hardly realistic, even in 2003, the peculiar barely-in the-past setting of this film. Why the movie is set four years ago is never explained and plays no part in the plot, which is a disappointment since it is set-up right at the beginning. I expected throughout that since we were watching a “then” part of a story by the denouncement we’d flash ahead to now, 2007, but that never happens, so if you see Lucky You don’t worry about it the way I did and let it bother you. Anyway, Billie has her older sister, Suzanne (Debra Messing; tv’s “Will & Grace”) to crash with in the meantime, and it is implied that perhaps Suzanne has been around the block a few million times (like most working gals caught up in the grind house that is the Strip in Vegas). Suzanne seems to know Huck Cheever (Eric Bana; Munich) on sight, when she comes upon him putting the moves on Billie, leaving us to wonder if there isn’t a bit of a past between these two that is never explored or talked about. Later on, when Huck and Suzanne share a scene alone, neither says anything to that end, but the tone Messing gives to Suzanne is one of protectiveness mixed with resignation, as if she knows how Huck is and how easy it is to fall for his charms and yet how, if you are inclined to look for more than a roll in the sack, you are bound to get hurt. It’s a quirky underlying thing that is one of many unspoken “could be” stories Hanson leaves untold, sort of going with the idea that everybody has a complicated back-story in the City where what happens there stays there, and he opts to follow that rule but with a wink here and again to the audience, as if to tell them to connect-the-dots.

Huck is no cad, by any means. He is just obsessed. Gambling is his life, and he is devoted to poker because he has something to prove ~ mostly to himself. His estranged father, L.C. Cheever (Robert Duvall; Thank You for Smoking) is the two-time World Champion Tournament Poker Player and, in Huck’s eyes, a bastard of a father, who abandoned him and his mother for another woman when Huck was just a boy and his mother was facing the challenges of an eventually terminal disease. The rift between the two men is the burning crux of Lucky You, and it contributes much more drama to the proceedings than the romantic story between Huck and Billie.

As much as Billie struggles with Huck’s gambling, lying, stealing to get money to gamble some more, and all the other downs that go with his lifestyle, she ultimately knows he is a man with a good heart and so we know they are destined to be together. Their crises du jour never seem as “jagged” to watch as the scenes between veteran Duval and Australian heavyweight Bana. They seem perfectly balanced as father and son, caught in a decades-plus conflict while maintaining a faux civility with one another that is near the breaking point. Huck’s off-hand cracks about L.C. obviously dyed hair or L.C.’s constant referral to his son with the child-like moniker “Huckleberry” may elicit chuckles from the others gathered at the poker table while they play, but for them each snide remark is like another clawing of fingernails down a chalkboard. It’s pure tension on-screen and in the actors’ eyes, though hidden well as they each maintain their best “poker faces” for all but the camera (and us) to detect.

I can’t believe I’d ever be fascinated by a movie that spends the majority of its time around a poker table, but
Lucky You gives its audience just enough story about the Cheevers and Billie to make us know that the turn of each card will determine the fate of each and affect all of their relationships away from the casino as well. While I pretty much cringed at the idea of the Vegas clichés and all they carry with them, Hanson uses them sparingly and only to show us that clichés only become clichés because they hold some common truth seen over and over again, and so while the stories of love and reconciliation may not appear to be anything new, this is still a touching and well-crafted story with fine acting from all three of the leads. Barrymore, as usual, proves that she can be strong, fragile, and beautiful simultaneously (and in this movie she even sings!), while Bana continues to live down his early embarrassment as The Hulk by showing off his ability to juggle both manliness and sensitivity without making either characteristic overblown in a Bruce Willis vs. Owen Wilson kind of way. As for Duvall, well, he is a legend, and no matter what an s.o.b. he appears to be playing he can make the character seem multi-dimensional with a mere twinkle of he eye or the rise of his brow. Lucky us that he is on-board here because there are few actors of his generation who could pull off the role of L.C. and make him anything but a villain. Thanks to Duvall, L.C. ends up being the guy you want to know more about as story ends, which is quite a feat considering he is third in the credits and barely a presence in the film’s advertisements, which, obviously, are skewed to the young adult market the studio hoped to capture with lingering shots of Drew and Eric looking like this generation’s Danny and Sandy.

Lucky You is definitely a long shot, coming out the same weekend as Spiderman 3. It will probably not get the press it deserves and it will disappear quickly since nobody dies, nobody is blown up and nobody trans-morphs into anything super-duper by the final credits, but as quiet as it is, Lucky You has a delicious enough cast and a story that will make you feel better about people in general, and that is a good enough reason to truck on down to the gorgeously renovated Essex Cinemas for a couple of hours. Seriously, I think you’ll like it. But leave the kids at home or send them of to Meet the Robinsons instead. Lucky You hasn’t got anything in it a kid shouldn’t see, but it’ full of things the kids won’t care to see. And you’ll want to give Lucky You your full attention.

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